IRB Nations Cup 2010

I had failed to reach Bucharest in time for 14th June, falling only a few hours short due to ill health, and general weakness of the body. We took the train from Pitesti and finished the final 108km in the comfort of an airconditioned carriage to make our meet in Bucharest. Operation “scrawny chicken” had proven far too effective on my body, and we created operation “Christmas Turkey” as a counter measure.

Awaiting us at Bucharest Nord was our contact Radu Constantine and his Welsh friend Peter. Wherever there is a rugby story, there is a Welshman and I love this because wherever there is a Welshman, there are 100 rugby stories waiting for you. We discussed Peter’s situation immediately, his business in Romania, how we has come to live there, speak the language and everything. His life is a story in itself and is living proof that if you are willing to put throw caution to the wind that anything can happen. The world can be divided into those who will buy a castle, and those who won’t.  Peter was a great help by taking care of the bikes for a few days and good company at the rugby too. He knew the history of not only the players on the pitch, but most of the crowd which added to the experience.

Initial contact with Radu Constantine and his wife Anca had been exciting, they had been the first couple to find us and offer an invitation to stay. In other cities it had been rugby clubs responding to our requests to meet. Radu was a huge rugby and cycle fan and had found us through his own curiosity, keeping tabs on rugby news around the world. We are so thankful to him that he did, our stay in Bucharest couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Radu Constantine is not just any rugby fan. He is a television journalist, a national expert on the sport, the Romanian equivalent of Bill McLaren. His knowledge of Romanian rugby is unrivalled, so much so that he has to commentate for more than one television broadcaster. He had represented Romania at U19 level, now coaches at the same level and had worked for the Romanian rugby union for many years. As we sat and ate dinner at their apartment overlooking the park in Colentina (translated as “there in the mud”) we felt privileged to have been found by this couple. Both Radu and Anca spoke great English and between them chipped in with stories of rugby and political history. From our experience in Europe, these topics are not mutually exclusive, the politics of the country has a strong influence on the culture of the people and the way in which sports are played and organised.

The first day and the temperature was scorching, Anca took us into the city and Jodie had her first chance to buy some suitable clothing for hot weather. After shopping we were treated to a private tour of the historical centre by Anca together with indepth explanations of the countries’ history. We started to imagine in the roles were reversed. What could I tell her about London? All I knew is that Big Ben was built by a man who was 4 foot 10, and I’ve since found out that the man on the river tour was lying to me, shame. Maybe I could tell her that the first FA Cup final was played in Battersea park, but that probably interests the average Englishman more than a Romanian rugby girl.

Onto the rugby stadium, and the second round of the IRB Nations Cup 2010. Our security contact Niko, met us at the closed staff entrance and guided us to the seats he had organised for us. Niko worked on rugby security when not coaching youth rugby. I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t still on the pitch. He was a man mountain of a number 8, and a personal friend of practically everyone we met. I think that the security team should have thrown away their “security” shirts and got “Niko” vests instead.  For the Napolean Dynamite fans amongst you, our man Niko could have offered Pedro his protection.

The IRB Nations Cup 2010 is an invitation tournament similar in structure to the Churchill Cup in USA/Canada. This year the teams were Romania, Georgia, Scotland A, Italy A, Argentina Jaguars and Namibia. First up was Italy A vs Georgia. Georgia had gained automatic qualification to the 2011 World Cup by finishing 2nd place behind Russia in Europe League 1, forcing third place Romania to now contest a 2 match playoff with Uruguay for the remaining place. As expected their pack displayed some brutal strength with early rolling mauls eating away at Italian territory. However, after a lively opening 10 minutes, and some missed penalty kicks, the Georgians yielded no points, and began to fall behind slowly to the boot of the Italian 10. The Georgians never quite regained their patterns and the Italians completed a professional victory showing the greater ambition with some wide play. (Italy A 21 – 3 Georgia)

We were pleased to see Namibia competing at this tournament. They were led by captain, Jacques Burger, who we had met at Saracens RFC before starting out journey. His signature was already on our scroll, and now he had featured during our journey too. Namibia faced Scotland A, last year’s champions. It was a fantastic spectacle of rugby with both sides using the sunny conditions to keep the ball alive and utilise early phases to release the backs. The scoreline doesn’t fully reflect the entertainment of this encounter, but some fantastic last ditch defense from Namibia saw them cling on to a narrow 23-20 victory. One tackle in particular from our openside friend Jacques was particularly impressive, as a fullback by nature, he put me to shame saving a certain try on the 5 metre line with a minute to spare.

Last up for the day, the hosts Romania took on Argentina Jaguars. The Jaguars are the 3rd team in Argentina, behind Argentina A. This only went to enforce the strength of their rugby. I still believe it is a shame that they couldn’t be included in our 6 Nations competition, it would have added a whole new dimension to the competition. Including Argentina in the new 4-Nations southern hemisphere competition is worrying for any northern hemisphere fan, there is already a distinguishable gap between us and the top 3, I hope this doesn’t become the top 4 by 2015.

The Romanian/Argentina clash was another lively encounter and skill levels were well matched. However, the Romanian National team edged the physical contest and soon starting dominating territory and possession. Some key individuals shone through and lifted Romania above and beyond the Jaguars. Ovidiu Tonita with some crashing runs from back row and Catalin Fercu on the wing sparked excitement with each possession. Catalin in particular displayed genuine international class, he looked dangerous, had genuine pace and balance and a great mind for running angles. It was a pleasure to witness the host’s victory on our first full day, and topped with an interview for Radu’s sports channel, we had it all.

Our week in Bucharest was spent investigating the Pakistan Visa situation, needlessly visiting the Pakistan embassy (twice), guesting on a rugby show with Sport FM, Total Rugby in UK, giving interviews to local press and enjoying the company of our great hosts.

Radu produced a news feature on us for DigiSport during the week, this was broadcast live during the half time interval of Scotland v Argentina on Saturday night. Before we knew it, it was Sunday and we had become far too comfortable with our situation. Anca had cooked us traditional Romanian food at every opportunity, provided us with more first aid for the journey ahead, and the pair had taken us everywhere. We couldn’t imagine being back on the road, in fact the idea of fending for ourselves was once again quite daunting.

On our penultimate day we were invited down to the stadium by Chris Thau from the IRB who wanted to write an article on us for the IRB website (http://www.irb.com/nationscup/news/newsid=2039145.html#rugby+world+cup+on+your+bike)

We met with Beth Coulter, the IRB Nations Cup organiser and the president of Romanian rugby Alin Petrarche, took some photos to help with our promotion and discussed the role that tournaments like the IRB Nations Cup have on public interest, and of the standards of the national sides. Beth Coulter is an Irish lady with a first class pedigree in tournament organisation. She had made a name for herself in the rugby world by running the Hong Kong 7s for many years before joining the IRB. We hope that we will get the chance to chat with Beth again at some point.

Sunday was our last day in Bucharest, and with it, the final round of the tournament. As the contest between Namibia and Georgia commenced, we instead chose to accompany Radu to a meeting at the sports centre next door. In 1960, 50 years ago, Romania had defeated France for the first time. This meeting was a reunion for some of the surviving players from this match. I was sat in the circle of tables next to the lively scrum half and opposite the full back. It was a great privilege to be amongst such men, and despite not understanding a word, we were able to show our appreciation for each player as he received an honorary tie of the Romanian Rugby Union. Even greater honour was being presented with one of these ties myself in the stands after the meeting.

We were spoilt for choice when deciding who should represent Romania on the scroll. We had players from all generations around us, each with heroic stories of Romania success in the glory days of the 80s and 90s. Finally we decided to feature a talismanic backrow captain from this era, Hary Dumitras. Hary played for the national team in the 80s and succeeded as captain in 1989 when the previous skipper, Florică Murariu, was shot dead at a road block following the collapse of communism. In 1990 they recorded their best win to date by beating France 12-6 on French soil for the first time. The following year they beat Scotland 18-12. At the 1991 World Cup they managed to beat Fiji 17-15. Hary represents one of the strongest periods for Romanian rugby, and his son now plays for the national team too.

We departed the meeting and sat for the second half of the Namibia match. They were trailing 13-0 as we sat down but fought back strongly with their effective running from deep and high tempo approach. The Georgian’s discipline failed and at one point had 3 players sitting side by side in the bin. The pressure told and the Namibian’s converted into points, edging the encounter 21-16, winning the tournament at the first attempt. The Namibian style and ambition had proven popular with the Bucharest crowd, fans of rugby are always pleased to see the beautiful side of the game triumph, no matter the teams.

The wooden spoon game was next contested surprisingly between Scotland A and Argentina Jaguars. Prior to the tournament, this match had been prematurely billed as the tournament decider, hence had been scheduled as the final fixture. Following two defeats apiece, the fixture had been moved, allowing Romania to compete for possible Nations Cup victory in the final match. Namibia had scuppered these plans but a record second place finish was available and would be eagerly contested by the hosts.

Argentina Jaguars forced the tempo and the Scottish were unable to match it. Irrespective of the scoreline, you will not see an Argentinian outfit play with less than 100% commitment. They lacked the physical attributes of the tall Scottish backs but were nimble, quick and strong. Their backs were not intimidated and wave after wave of testing the Scottish defence paid dividends, running in numerous tries. The Argentinians took apart their opposition and avoided the wooden spoon with a 33-13 victory.

Last up, and the stadium was full to witness Romania persist with their new attacking style of rugby and contest the runners up position. They were not disappointed. Again, the Romanians threw away the shackles of a traditional “pack” dominated approach, and utilised the skills of the young creative backline. Once more, the talents of Catalin Fercu were on display as he cut through the Italian defence, bouncing off tackles and offloading at pace to create the first Romanian try. This set the tone for the match and the Italians followed suit displaying attacking rugby of their own. For 70 minutes the teams were equal, exchanging penalty kicks when the opportunities presented, but never losing their drive for the match winning try. This came in the last 10 minutes from the hosts after a moment of hesitation from the Italians on the blind side. A simple fumble and again the star man Catalin was there to pounce on the mistake. From 40 metres he was too quick for his opposition, kicking, collecting, and finishing a quality try in the corner putting the Romanians over a score ahead. Despite a late Italian onslaught and penalty kick they held on to a well deserved victory winning 27-22 and finishing in second place for the first time. We hadn’t been in Bucharest for the first match against winners Namibia but we know that they had been leading this match before a Namibian try in the final phase of the match had snatched victory 21-17. Had it not been for this final minute, Romania would have won the tournament.

I hate clichés, especially in sport. They have no meaning to me, but I can’t sum up this tournament without saying that rugby was the winner. I can concentrate on our experience in Romania now and leave you with Chris Thau’s comments on the IRB website, there’s nothing further I can add. http://www.irb.com/nationscup/news/newsid=2039043.html#romania+reap+reward+high+performance+drive

We were very sad to leave Radu and Anca (and Max the dog) behind. We had lived with our new friends for one whole week. We know already that we will not deliberately spend this long at any place on our journey. It would take years to cross the planet in this manner, but we had needed time to recover, keep the media interest alive, and to witness the most important rugby opportunities presented to us in Europe.

So a huge thanks to our new friends in Bucharest, and we look forward to seeing you guys in Melbourne!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: